Monthly Archives: June 2009

Iran Inside Out

If nothing else comes from the past weeks’ headlines out of Tehran, let us hope that Americans, generally, will become aware that Iran is far more complex politically, historically and culturally than the average American has been led to believe. Current American perceptions seem so often hopelessly colored by a steady diet of Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic rants, half-remembered impressions of the American embassy hostage ordeal, and the occasional story of atrocities committed by the country’s despicable religious vigilantes.

photo by Tarnie/Creative Commons

photo by Tarnie/Creative Commons

 We Americans, unfortunately, don’t have a particularly rosy history when it comes to international affairs in the post World-War world. Our sad history of military intervention in Southeast Asia, and our recent adventurism in Iraq shared a key characteristic: a willful blindness before-the-fact to the local historical and political context. It is almost as if, as a nation, we want continually to mimic the worst stereotype of the American tourist (or more kindly, revisit the high-minded naivete of Alden Pyle, the eponymous Quiet American of the classic Graham Greene novel) who even on the familiar ground of Western Europe, can still wonder why no one speaks “American.”

Those of us who live in the New York area, have the opportunity to correct some of our ignorance of contemporary Iran by visiting the compelling ‘Iran Inside Out,’ an exhibition of the “Influences of Homeland and Diaspora on the Artistic Language of 56 Contemporary Iranian Artists” at the Chelsea Art Museum between now and September 5.

Nothing you could do in a single afternoon will give you a better understanding of the true motives of Iran’s “green revolution” reformers, or prepare you to understand the context of the particular political and cultural crossroads at which Iran stands today, and the potential resolutions that may play themselves out there in the days, months and years ahead.

For those of us without convenient access to New York City, an online version is here: Iran Inside Out. Please take this opportunity to appreciate and ponder on the work of these brave voices.

Negar Ahkami, Oil Barrel No. 4

Negar Ahkami, Oil Barrel No. 4

The Wrecking Crew, by Thomas Frank

Acerbic history of our executiveoverlord state.

Required reading.

“Judy Garland, 47, Found Dead

Singer Judy Garland, shortly before her death

Singer Judy Garland, shortly before her death

By THE NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON, June 22- Judy Garland, whose successes on stage and screen were later overshadowed by the pathos of her personal life, was found dead in her home here today.

The cause of death of the 47-year-old singer was not immediately established, and an autopsy was scheduled. [Reuters reported that police sources said a preliminary investigation revealed nothing to suggest that Miss Garland had taken her own life.]

Miss Garland’s personal life often seemed a fruitless search for the happiness promised in “Over the Rainbow,” the song she made famous in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.”

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York, June 25, 2009

Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York, June 25, 2009

In all seriousness. Poor, lucky, tortured, brilliant, boy. Your sudden death is oddly touching. Like Judy, one supposes, a testament to the outsize scale of your talent and your demons both. Do they always go hand in hand? You fit the mold like a glove (if you’ll forgive me), Michael.

So, here’s one for you, Jacko, in memory of Judy:

(Video above courtesy Sony Music Entertainment. Please click “Watch on YouTube” to enjoy.)

“Hunger can be a positive motivator” (as seen on “Countdown”)

Missouri Republican State Majority Whip, Cynthia Davis

Missouri Republican State Majority Whip, Cynthia Davis

From the department of “no comment” — and the great State of Missouri, land of the neo-Nazi adopt-a-highway program — proudly comes Republican State Majority Whip Cynthia Davis.

While 16% of Missouri’s children live in poverty, Ms. Davis went on record yesterday decrying the state’s $20 million Summer Food Service Program for poor children as nothing more than a covert (and implicitly disgusting) “expansion of a public program.”

Ms. Davis’s words are too priceless to paraphrase, so I reproduce below, for your edification, some choice quotes from her commentary, unedited. (You can read the whole thing here.)

“During hard times, many families find it even more important to pull together.  Families may economize by choosing to not waste hard earned dollars on potato chips, ice cream, or Twinkies.  Perhaps some families will buy more beans and chicken and less sweets.”

“If parents are laid off, that doesn’t mean they stop feeding their children, at least not any of the parents I know.  Laid off parents could adapt by preparing more home cooked meals rather than going out to eat.”

“This program could have an unintended consequence of diminishing parental involvement.  Why have meals at home with your loved ones if you can go to the government soup kitchen and get one for free?  This could have the effect of breaking apart more families.”

“Who’s buying dinner?   Who is getting paid to serve the meal?  Churches and other non-profits can do this at no cost to the taxpayer if it is warranted.  That is what they did when Louisiana had a hurricane.”

“When churches offer a meal, they can serve the individual with a sense of love and caring for those less fortunate.  Government cannot match that.  Bigger governmental programs take away our connectedness to the human family, our brotherhood and our need for one another.”

“…who created a new rule that says government must make up for any lack at home?   The problem of childhood obesity has been cited as one of the most rapidly growing health problems in America.  People who are struggling with lack of food usually do not have an obesity problem.”

“Anyone under 18 can be eligible?  Can’t they get a job during the summer by the time they are 16?  Hunger can be a positive motivator.   What is wrong with the idea of getting a job so you can get better meals? Tip:  If you work for McDonald’s, they will feed you for free during your break.

The NBC/Amy Poehler comedy “Parks & Recreation,” the character of the mayor is a guy who has only one belief: that “government” is horrible, that “government” must be destroyed, that “government” is first and always the enemy of “the people.” Naturally, that’s why he ran for office. It’s supposed to be a parody! But state and municipal governments across the country are infested with these public service-loathing nutbags.

And our newly-empowered Democrats run scared in the face of this nonsense. It’s becoming harder every day not to agree with Bill Maher’s recent rant:

“…we don’t have a left and a right party in this country any more. We have a center right party, and a crazy party. And over the last thirty odd years, Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital.”

Please let the at least mildly disturbed Rep. Davis know how you feel about her lunch program-hating comments, email her here.

Lindsey Graham is an asshole. (But you already knew that.)

Lindsey Graham, R-SC, enjoys a little yuck-yuck during the 2008 Presidential campaign
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, enjoys a little yuck-yuck during the 2008 Presidential campaign

Leading Republicans have been deploying two equally disingenous, almost laughably self-contradictory arguments to try and defeat health care reform, and especially the desperately-needed “public option” government-administered insurance plan.

First, they argue, it would be unfair to make insurance companies compete with the federal government. Now, coming from Republican folks who argue day and night that the private sector is always superior, always more efficient, this is an interesting paradox. Since it should be self-evident to all us schlubs who are not in Congress, that the current private health insurance system is working so very, very well — indeed, the American health care system is the greatest in the world, despite any stupid statistics (or your personal experiences) to the contrary — it would just be inherently unfair to have to compete with the big, bad federal government, which, after all, never does anything right and…. Well, that’s kind of where I lose them.
Perhaps more insipidly — Senator Graham, do you not avail yourself of your Congressional health plan? — is the argument that any federal insurance program would impose government “bureaucrats” on your personal health care decision making process. Senator Graham hit this week’s Sunday talk show circuit to make just this argument:
(Transcript of “This Week with George Stephanopoulous,” Sunday June 21, 2009.)
 
As a real citizen — who over the course of the last 20 years has received private health care coverage through just 2 employers (of my wife’s), but has been placed, with little or no control, into at least 16 different health insurance plans during that same time — I would like to offer Sen. Graham a little visual primer on the U.S. health care insurance system and “bureaucracy.” To wit, I have drawn this little graph for the Senator’s enlightenment:
Senator Graham begs to differ. When I see all those bureaucrats standing between me and my doctor in the diagram above, I’m just being a socialist (or fascist, depending on the day of the week) fellow-traveler. I should know it takes a Senate Republican, who receives generous federal health insurance for himself and his family, to explain to me how there are actually no “bureaucrats” in the diagram above, only hard-working, honest businessmen, doing the best for me and my family. So, after consulting the Republican talking points on health care reform, I realized I had to change the picture. So, thanks to Senator Graham, below is the “real” picture of the American health care insurance system:

 

Of course, while Senator Graham is one of the worst examples, the biggest meaningful obstacle to getting a reasonable public health care insurance option in this country are certain conservative Congressional Democrats. Please write your Congressional representatives, especially if you live in an area represented by one of these fence-sitting Democrats, and let them know that Senator Graham’s view of the public option is the view of a blind, old fool, and that the best way to remove “bureaucrats” from the relationship between you and your doctor is to institute some form of public health insurance program.

Do it before you get sick or go bankrupt. And don’t fool yourself that your flim-flam private insurance is going to keep this from happening to you. Have you actually read your health insurance policy? Do you even know what it covers, honestly? The fact is that the same “entrepreneurs” who brought you sub-prime mortgages, credit card contracts and Bernie Madoff sell you your health insurance. Think there’s much difference? Think again.

Health care was never truly a “market,” in any sensible meaning of that word, to begin with. The time is now to stand up and demand a health care system that works for all of us.

Iran: America’s most dependable mid-East ally?

(Video hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

I’ve long been of the opinion that once the U.S. State Department and other American foreign affairs powers-that-be got over the long trauma of the Iranian revolution and the “loss” of Iran, that the S’hia Muslims and historical Persians of Iran were generally better suited intellectually and emotionally to be friends of America than the Gulf Arabs of Saudi Arabia. If the very dangerous and potentially incendiary and potentially harmfully destabilizing “popular” uprising today in Iran can, against very long odds, succeed, we may very quickly find the entire arithmetic of mid-East diplomacy changed. The first place that could benefit from that new arithmetic would be Afghanistan, of course.

We must, first and foremost, of course, not be tempted to militarily intervene, regardless of how things turn out. But with a great deal of luck, a new Iranian state could emerge that would be at least as friendly to American interests, while posing some of the same ideological challenges, as today’s China or Vietnam. That would be what, I think the pundits would call, a major inflection point.

The GOP in “Reverse”: “Reverse Class Warfare” and “Reverse Racism”

We have come to the GOP’s end of days, where “class warfare” means marginally lifting the income cap on payroll taxes (or holding the president of AIG’s salary to the same range as that of the President of the United States), and racism means hating on whitey (“no german soldier ever called me honky!”).

Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL

Senator Jeff Sessions, R-AL, victim of reverse racism

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), a man who once famously said the only thing that troubled him about the KKK was that some of their members smoked pot, calls Judge Sonya Sotomayor’s comments about her experience as a Latina “troubling,” implying there is some suspect “racialist” tinge to her thinking. Sessions’ remarks about the KKK, a history of referring to the NAACP as “communist” and “un-American,” and similar on-the-record remarks he later claimed were  “jokes,” kept Sessions from winning Senate approval for appointment to the Federal bench in 1986. This, he will tell you, as so-called “racist” Sotomayor sails towards the Supreme Court, is the troubling double-standard that faces down-trodden white Republicans everywhere.

Rush Limbaugh, whose salary is reported to be in excess of $39 million a year, leads the GOP class warfare charge, decrying the progressive income tax as “socialism,” and demonstrating the fiscal sense one would expect from a not-quite-recovered opioid addict, ridicules any suggestion of the need for raising marginal income or capital gains tax rates in the face of historic deficits as “class warfare.” So much for “ask what you can do for your country,” then.

Gordon Gekko, victim of class warfare

Gordon Gekko, victim of class warfare

Card check and union organizing are class warfare. Limiting the average CEO wage at “public” companies to 400 or 500 times the wage of the average worker is class warfare. (How can Citi possibly recruit more “talented” managers at a salary of a “mere $500,000”?) Universal health care and free day care are class warfare. Teachers’ unions are a Platonic ideal of class warfare. And these sentiments are echoed everywhere from the Halls of Congress to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claims that all Americans are invited to President Obama’s economic “table,” but that the entrepreneur and the “rich” are “the main course.” And Senator Lindsey Graham is typical of Congressional Republicans, calling any proposal for marginally increasing capital gains taxes a type of “class warfare,” whose time has passed:

Class warfare is a time-tested political endeavor whose time has passed. We are in this together. There are about 270,000 people in my State who depend on capital gains income and dividend income. Senator Kyl has gone through, in very detailed fashion, who benefits from capital gains and dividend tax reductions, and there are a lot of seniors.

The world is topsy-turvy, and it’s not surprising that the GOP, backward-facing as ever, should take up the mantle of the rich, white guy as victim. The White Man’s Burden lives, and the GOP will retreat to permanent irrelevancy before they give up their raison d’etre, standing, as they imagine themselves, between the citidal and the hungry horde.

Bike Lanes are not enough

An abject lesson from Paris. Bike lanes and “complete streets” are not adequate without proper enforcement and a proper “share the road” attitude from drivers both casual and professional.

Here They Go Again: “Morgan Stanley Smith Barney”

MSDW_MarkOur large financial institutions simply refuse to learn the lesson that large, M&A-driven investment shops, and retail investment firms, cannot comfortably coexist. There are simply too many inherent conflicts of interest, and most so-called “firewalls” are observed mostly in the breach. Deregulation, and most important, Graham-Leach-Bliley, removed the last remnant of common sense in this arena: you just can’t mix oil and water. 

MS_MarkNevertheless, the brilliant minds that brought you “Morgan Stanley Dean Witter” — a merger that cost billions, that cost untold millions to “brand,” and then just a few years later cost shareholders untold millions more to “un-brand” — now bring you “Morgan Stanley Smith Barney“.

MSSB_markGee, and to think, they could call it “Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Smith Barney & Co.” Hey, why didn’t I think of that?

How Cyclists are Changing American Cities

Pedaling Revolution
An important book for everyone interested in making American cities and suburbs more intelligent and safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

There’s an excellent review in The New York Times by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame, of all people.